The Constitution developed a system of government, federalism, that ideally is the best form of government, a combination of republicanism and democracy that balances power between the legislative, executive, and judicial. Federalism means that the Constitution is based on a working relationship between local, state, and federal government.
The first century of the U.S. under the Constitution featured an extensive, often violent, debate about the relationship between local, state, and federal power. At issue was the question: when does federal power trump state and local power, and should it?
The Constitution as written seemed to imply that federal power, the power of the whole, would trump the power of the individual, as represented by state and local government. This is the thrust of the Preamble.
But beginning in 1791 this apparent theme of the Constitution was altered by amendments, most importantly the Bill of Rights, such as:
1st Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”;
5th Amendment: individuals cannot be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”;
9th Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
10th Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
And later amendments, such as the 14th: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
But, during the first 70 years of the 19th century the federal government slowly grew in strength compared to the states. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the balance between state and federal power became more even, as Republicans turned more to a laissez-faire approach to federal power. But during the 20th century, and continuing to today, the power of the federal government has expanded.
The reason: most politicians, and the two dominant political parties, sensed that federal power was not a problem but a solution. But is this true?
If there was any sort of balance between federal and state/local power, it ended in the 1930s during the New Deal. With Franklin Roosevelt, the President, in addition to those powers constituted (power to execute laws and power of commander-in-chief), becomes:
- Economic Leader of the Nation: solutions for unemployment, solutions for prices, solutions for wages, solutions for relationships between workers (labor) and bosses (management), solutions for trade, solutions for production, solutions to banking, solutions to investment problems;
- Legislative Leader of the Nation: President will propose programs to address all of the economic/social problems, then Congress will act on them;
- Social Leader of the Nation: President is responsible to heal social wounds, to solve problems in society (race relations, labor relations, economic inequality, how to help the poor, education, drug abuse, immigration, and recently, gender and sexuality).
After Roosevelt, our economy/society/government became a mixed economy: some attributes of capitalism and some attributes of socialism.
The 18th century English poet, Alexander Pope, in Essays on Man, wrote of government:
“For forms of government, let fools contest,
That which is best administered is best.”
It is difficult to debate Pope’s conclusion, especially in light of the history of American government.
The question remains, which expression, which interpretation, of the Constitution, is best administered.
I would argue it is as the Constitution written and amended, without the concerns of party politics and ideology. This is what Madison thought (in Federalist #10) that the Constitution would do, but he certainly did not anticipate the dominance of our two-party system and all of the hidden (and not so hidden) consequences that result from it.
Best administered, to my idealistic mind, is what Aristotle had in mind when he wrote that government should be the means of promoting virtue among the citizenry.
Does government promote virtue among citizens?
The answer to this question will tell us whether or not our government is best administered.